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Saturday, February 16 , 2019, 3:59 am | Fair 51º


Captain’s Log: Respect and Understand Big Water

Kayaker Sean Fleming's tragedy at sea is a reminder of the dangers of winds, waves and currents

A good man was lost at sea last weekend. Sean Fleming was a smart and tough professional man with skills and experiences far beyond the average seafarer. Yet the sea claimed him.

Capt. David Bacon
Capt. David Bacon (Ramona Lisa McFadyen photo)

As a fellow seafarer, my heart is heavy for him, for his family and for his wide circle of admiring friends and co-workers. He seems the sort to survive, so hope is held dearly.

There were small-craft advisories last weekend throughout the Santa Barbara Channel, and gale warnings at the west end near where Fleming went fishing on his kayak from Gaviota State Beach. I was at sea myself, on my 31-foot charter vessel, in the calmest water around — near the Santa Barbara Harbor — so I know how riled the sea became that weekend.

Anytime the sea becomes surgy and surly with tall, steep wind waves and intervals of six seconds or less, we call it “big water.” Even without local whitecaps, big water is treacherous.

The safe thing to do is study water conditions, and when big water is apparent, stay ashore. If you do go to sea, wear flotation and safety gear, and alert someone ashore who can wait for your return and place an emergency call if you fail to return by an established time.

Currents are another little-understood physical force in the Santa Barbara Channel. We have powerful currents capable of easily overpowering a human-powered craft. When strong currents are running “uphill” against wind and seas, the result is like an agitate cycle that can easily roll a small craft.

In general, our currents in the Santa Barbara Channel circle about in a counterclockwise gyre. Given this general feature, Fleming’s backpack and kayak were found right where knowledgeable seafarers would expect — midchannel between Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz Island, many long miles away from Gaviota State Beach where he launched.

First his backpack was found by a charter operator (not by searchers, as earlier reported). Later, some miles down current, his kayak was found by a commercial fisher (again, not by searchers, as earlier reported). The kayak was farther down current (eastward) because it floats higher in the water than the backpack and is therefore pushed along at a greater speed. As of this writing, Fleming has not been located.

The community of seafarers takes a loss like this very seriously because we care about one another and because we all accept that the sea is capable of claiming any of us. But we love the sea and heed its call as Fleming did.

Big water is capable of taking even the mightiest seafarer, as it seems to have done last weekend. Please choose your water carefully and establish an onshore support system.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help.

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